By Jared Turner
And then there were 12.
With last Sunday’s elimination race at Dover International Speedway, Chris Buescher, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray all fell out of contention for the 2016 Sprint Cup title.
Moving on to the next round and still in the hunt for the sport’s biggest prize are Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Kevin Harvick.
Of the dozen remaining championship hopefuls, only Dillon and Elliott – a Sprint Cup Series rookie – are winless entering Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Truex, who with his win on Sunday at Dover has been to Victory Lane four times this season – and, more importantly – three times in the past five races.
No one enters the Round of 12 with more more momentum – or as a heavier favorite to win – than Truex and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team led by second-year crew chief Cole Pearn.
“I mean, it’s just clicking,” Truex said. “Honestly, I feel like all season long we’ve been the same team, and we’ve done the same things. You know, I guess right now it’s just our time. You know, throughout the summer, we led so many laps and had so many great race cars and so many great weekends that things would happen. Sometimes it was just rotten luck, sometimes it was mistakes or just circumstances that didn’t play out. But I think that the biggest thing is we just kept our heads in the game. We stayed focused on the things that truly matter, and when all that bad luck went away, here we are.”
Over the past five races, Truex has led 581 laps and finished no worse than seventh. While it’s reasonable to suggest he might have trouble keeping such a torrid pace over the final seven weeks, the Mayetta, New Jersey native points out that he and his No. 78 Toyota team have been stout all season.
If anything, Truex just seems to be getting stronger the further he goes.
“We have done this all year long,” said Truex, who has recorded 15 top-10 finishes and led 1,594 laps over the 29 races this season. “I mean, you look at this team and what we’ve done, aside from bad luck, I can’t tell you how many races we could have won this year. You’ve seen the same thing.
“I think that we’ve just got to go out there each week and try to be as prepared as we can. We’re not going to change who we are. We didn’t do that before the Chase started. We just got hot and we got momentum, and hopefully we don’t lose it.”
If there’s any track where Truex and team should be able to keep their momentum intact, it’s Charlotte — where they won the Coca-Cola 600 back in May. Truex captured the victory in record-breaking fashion, leading 392 of 400 laps from the pole.
If Truex can complete the season sweep at Charlotte, he’ll punch his ticket to the Round of 8 and be one step closer to making a second consecutive appearance in the Championship 4 winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway where last year he finished last among the four championship finalists.
“We’ve got a strong team, and we didn’t make it to Homestead last year for no reason,” Pearn said. “I really feel like we’re in better equipment this year.
“We’re hitting on all cylinders right now. Every track we go to, even the tracks we haven’t been good in the past, we’ve been pretty good at.”